Poorly Cast As A Malcontent

One of the highlights of the Postal Service album Give Up is the duet 'Nothing Better'. The typical heart-on-sleeve, sad-sack singer imagines growing old with the woman of his dreams. Nothing special there„some bands base their entire career on that conceit. This dream girl, however, chimes in that the guy really needs to get over her and move on with his life. And with that, she neatly undercuts nearly twenty years of the entire indie-pop genre of music. Describing the mode of music is difficult because it is mostly 'not' things: not particularly punk, pop, rock or whatever, though elements of all those are creep in; not (in the USA at least) chart-topping (that is reserved for soul-less robots, no offense to any robots with souls); and, often, not very good. The biggest influences are usually just other indie-pop bands so many bands remain in a stifling circular flight holding pattern. It's a shame since some very talented musicians do not bother to push themselves very hard and seem content to stay in an indie stranglehold for whatever reason. Laziness as a lifestyle choice isn't a valid excuse any longer.

Fortunately, some bands fly in wider circles. The Postal Service is a collaboration between Death Cab For Cutie's singer Ben Gibbard with Jimmy Tamborella of Dntel. Ben provides the voice and lyrics with Jimmy providing a background of synthesizer blips, bloops, and drum loops. If the year were 1992, the songs probably would have featured the traditional band line-up of guitar, guitar, bass, and drums (Ben saves that for his other band). An entire album of synthesizer and beat-based tunes written this way goes to show how far along acceptance of non-acoustic music has gone in the past decade. No, beats are no longer the realm of drug-addled ravers or dancing queens. Please read this note if you find the previous statement (A) wrong, or (B) offensive. (A) Please bear in mind that the indie-pop genre is slow to adapt to the ways of mainstream music trends, for better or for worse. (B) As a homosexual, I've heard enough High-NRG to be wary of anything going thump-thump. 'Natural Anthem' features two violin samples competing for attention amid a din before building to an eventual release. Ben's lyrics can veer toward preciousness, but sometimes a little wide-eye wonder is appreciated.

Death Cab For Cutie's recent album Transatlanticism is apparently very popular with the kids. Why shouldn't it be? Ben mines most of the same lyrical terrain of love lost and heartbreak, but the typical band line-up has a hard time to compete with the galaxy of electronics sounds of the Postal Service. Ben's voice has a hard time conveying the despair that the distorted guitars conjure. He sings 'you are beautiful but you don't mean a thing to me' on the song 'Tiny Vessels'. Using a band's own line to deride them seems kind of unfair--okay, then I'm unfair. Transatlanticism is a solid guitar-rock-indie album, but I have reservations. Like the Pernice Brothers or Ivy, the notes are right, the singing is right, but the heart of it is elsewhere, lost in studied reverence of other bands. Death Cab For Cutie is less polite on 'We Looked Like Giants' and better for it when the guitars hit with lyrics that recall fumbling in the backseat of a car.

About two years ago in an episode of the television series Gilmore Girls, Rory Gilmore was happily listening to music with headphones in her high school cafeteria while reading some thick novel. A burst of a song came through on her headphones before she was called to her principal's office for not socializing. I spent the rest of the evening skipping through each track of Kink Kronikles to locate the song only to find out later it was the Shins' 'Know Your Onion!'. The band's first album, Oh, Inverted World, had the type of popularity that began as a happy accident with the stars aligned correctly and the seers reading the bones correctly. The band has studied their influences well„the video for the song 'New Slang' showed the band members in living tableaus of their favorite record covers from Slint's Spiderland to Moon Pix by Cat Power. But the songwriting came through for that song weaving a tale of that lost hazy memory of being young (maybe„that's open to debate). The Shins appeared in just about every glossy magazine in anticipation of the follow-up album Chutes Too Narrow. And for the most part, the album expands both on songwriting and singing with neither massive surprises or disappointments. The biggest strength is the often surreal lyrics that may be either poetry or gibberish. When James sings about 'poorly cast as a malcontent' on 'Mine's Not A High Horse', he cuts to the heart of the matter even better than the ex-girlfriend on the Postal Service's 'Nothing Better' does. Sad-sack lovers aren't the ones to overthrow the government in a bloody coup„they are the ones to write indie-pop songs as their girlfriends leave them for world trade protests.

© 2004 Matthew Hintz